My sister Kim said come and live with us for a while, get away from those people, they’re a bad influence, they’re bad for you. And so I did, not to get away from those people, I didn’t even know what people she was talking about. I went to live with Kim and her husband and her kid because I had been caught on cctv stealing from multiple stores, and sooner or later someone would put a name to my face. I figured it’d be best to be gone when that happened. Cops might come to my mom’s apartment looking but no one would bother chasing me down out in the boonies over some magazines and a few cheap bottles of wine.
I was going to take a bus but my brother-in-law Sam came to get me instead in his tricked-out Explorer. He put on the satellite radio, telling me to find whatever I wanted to listen to, there were hundreds of stations to choose from. He was showing it off, obviously, and it was so awkward I didn’t have the heart to tell him I didn’t care about music or news or podcasts or whatever. I tuned in some kind of forgettable something and then rolled down my window, even thought the day was cold. Sam didn’t say anything. The wind rushed in around my head, filling up my ears in a pleasant way, so I could close my eyes and hide behind my hair. I pretended to sleep for a while, and Sam let me.
Sam and Kim and Winston, their kid, lived in a big old farmhouse that had exactly one tree in the front yard and was surrounded for miles on all sides by flat, flat, empty land. It was like someone had a giant piece of paper and planned to draw a whole city, but after doodling one house and one tree they got bored and wandered away. I tried to keep track of where we were going after Sam got off the highway, but he kept making turns and turns, left and right, and there were no street signs and hardly any landmarks. We crossed a pretty big river at one point, then drove on an unmarked blacktop through a weird dense cluster of trees, and when we passed through that there was just nothing but dried-out fields of ancient cornstalks on both sides, as far as the eye could see. There were couple of falling-down buildings that might have been barns once, and a dead raccoon with its feet in the air on the side of the road. That was it. Then a dot appeared on the horizon and as we sped toward it, it grew into a house shape, and eventually Sam slowed down and put on his turn signal for some reason, and we pulled into a winding gravel path that was a driveway. And then we were at the house, a giant cereal box against the flat gray sky.
The one tree was a massive, mean-looking oak with two raggedy ropes hanging from a high branch, like a swing had been there but gave up up a long time ago. I got out of the Explorer and shuffled through a bunch of dead leaves. Sam got out of the driver’s seat and met me at the front of the car, my duffel bag already in his hand. He’d been quiet during the ride, out of respect for my pretend-sleep, I guess, but now I was standing outside in the grim chill air and very obviously awake, so he started to talk at me.
“Here we are, home sweet home,” he said, smiling. He was the kind of guy who was always smiling aggressively so you couldn’t ever tell if he was trying to be nice with the smile, or if it meant something else entirely. “You’re going to love it. We’ve lived here for decades—my family. And we always had people coming and going, all the time, family, friends, all kinds of guests. So important! Having lots of folks around, it gives the place life.”
“It’s…big,” I said. I meant to say it’s nice but looking at the place I couldn’t quite get the word out. I mean, it was big, and kind of nice when you first saw it, before you started noticing things like the paint scabs peeling off the siding and the splintery wood of the porch railing, droopy blinds hanging in the windows like half-closed eyelids.
“Oh, it’s plenty big,” he said. “Plenty of room for you.” He shifted my duffel from one hand to the other—I reached out to take it but he didn’t seem to notice and instead slung the strap up over his shoulder, running his hand along the nylon sides like he was patting it down for weapons. “We are so happy to have you here,” he said. “I think this place will be just what you need, I really mean it.”
I looked around at the house, the yard with its carpet of dry leaves and brown grass. It didn’t look like the kind of place that had a lot of guests on the regular. “Okay,” I said.
“It’s not the city, of course, but then, who would want it to be?” He shook his head. “Not me!” He took a deep, dramatic breath. “This place feeds my soul.”
I rolled my eyes. But then I felt a little bad, because that was rude. He was giving me a place to stay, after all, a place to hide, even. No one would be able to find me out here. I hadn’t told anyone I was leaving except my mother, and I was pretty sure even she didn’t know exacly where Kim had moved to. I hadn’t realized until now, actually, just how far away Sam had taken her from us.
I’d only met Sam in person a few times, when he and Kim started dating, and I’d only seen them once since they got married five years ago. They’d eloped, and Kim had sent me a letter from this country house he’d moved her into, saying she had a new life that was perfect, she was so happy, I would never believe how wonderful life could be, but she hoped I would find out for myself someday, et cetera. And she was sorry for leaving me alone in the city with Mom but I’d be grown soon and could take care of myself, she was sure, et cetera. I mean, it sounded terrible to me, living out in the middle of nowhere with a guy who, to be honest, she didn’t even know that well, but she said she was happy and I had my own stuff going on then, so.
A few months after that, Kim showed up at the apartment and told me she was pregnant. And she seemed kind of down about it. She kept rubbing at her belly, not in that dreamy way you see in the movies, but with a worried, uncomfortable frown. But I asked her if everything was all right and she said she guessed so, it was just strange to feel like your body isn’t really your own any more. I wish I knew someone else who had kids, she’d said, I just want to know if it’s normal to feel like this.
You could ask Mom, I’d said, and we both had a good laugh about that. Our mom had always been more like a landlord than a parent, and I wasn’t entirely convinced she’d even given birth to us—maybe she’d found us under some cabbage leaves. I felt sorry for Kim, but I didn’t know how I could help her. Maybe someday you will, she’d said.
A couple of hours later Sam showed up, smiling, and Kim let him help her with her jacket and they walked out together holding hands. It all seemed fine, although there was a little shadow in the corner of my mind that seemed not fine. Like there was something unpleasant I could almost see, but not quite.
And that’s how I felt now, with Sam smiling at me all the time. “Shall we?” he said, sticking his elbow toward me like I was supposed to take it so he could walk me down some aisle. He was trying to be funny, and polite, but it was just weird, and I didn’t really want to touch him, so I pretended not to notice and turned to study the house.
It was afternoon but it was December, so the daylight was already weak and dimming. I wondered why Kim wasn’t on the porch or at the window waving at me. I felt a weird squirm of worry in my stomach. Sam seemed to realize that I wasn’t going to take his arm, and let it drop back down to his side. He thrust my duffel bag toward me unceremoniously. His smile was still there, but it had slipped just a notch. “The door’s unlocked, Kim’s inside, please make yourself at home. There’s plenty to eat if you’re hungry.” He looked over his shoulder, toward the long driveway and the road beyond. “I have to go, while it’s still daylight. But I’ll be back this evening, and we can all have our supper together.”
As I walked across the lawn, I searched each window for Kim, and as I passed under the big oak tree, two hands and a face dropped down in front of me. I jumped back and screeched. The face did not scream back, or laugh, or change expression.
It was Winston, I guessed. He was hanging by his knees from a thick branch, staring at me with his upside-down, blank little face. He was wearing a t-shirt and no coat, and his shirt had drooped toward his neck so his belly button was exposed, and I shivered just to look at him, but he didn’t seem bothered by the cold.
“Hey,” I said. “I’m Tara. Your aunt Tara.”
No response. He just hung there, swinging gently back and forth, his mouth slightly open so I could see the wet edges of his sharp white teeth.
“Aren’t you cold?” I asked. “What are you doing up in that tree with no coat on?”
“I’m growing,” he said.
“Oh,” I said. “Okay. So where’s Kim? Where’s your mom?”
Winston shook his head and then with a quick circus grace slipped off the branch and spun to the ground, landing in a crouch. The dense branches above rattled, like something was scrambling to hide deeper in the shadows. Winston stood up, a fistful of leaves in each hand. “Go inside,” he said. He crushed the leaves and watch them crumble between his fingers, then sat down and started swishing his hands and feet around as if he were playing in a pool of water. I didn’t much like a weird kid giving me orders, but I also didn’t really want to stay out here talking to him, so I moved past him without saying anything else and headed for the porch.
The front door was oddly big and arched, like a church door, completely out of place on the boring white box that was the rest of the house. It had an iron knocker, a ring held in the mouth of some kind of dragon-lionish creature. I didn’t see a doorbell so I rapped with the knocker, hard. I could hear it echo in the house. I waited a few seconds, knocked again, then peered in the windows on either side of the door. No sounds, no movements. I looked behind me, to the yard, but Winston had disappeared, back into the tree or who knows where. So I tried the door handle.
Of course it was open.
Inside, I wandered around the first floor, calling for Kim. It was just an ordinary collection of rooms, sofas with flowery grandma upholstery, dark polished-wood tables with knobby carved legs, some bland oil paintings of trees and lakes hanging here and there. The kitchen was cold and show-room clean. Kim had never shown an interest in cooking but I would have thought she’d have picked it up by now; I mean, she had a kid, and what could she possibly do all day out here by herself, while Sam did whatever he did? I touched the spotless burners on the gas stove and thought, well, maybe she picked up cooking but also cleaning, maybe she has gotten really really good at cleaning.
I thought about opening the cabinets or the refrigerator, but I didn’t.
The house had been quiet up till now, but as I stood in the kitchen I heard footsteps above me. “Kim!” I yelled again, but still no answer. But it had to be her upstairs, and I thought, was she sick? Was she some kind of invalid now?
You can see that none of this seemed right. I mean, I was in that house that felt 75 percent normal and 25 percent what-the-fuck, and that 25 percent was really coming at me hard. I looked out the kitchen window, where the sun was a pale white spot low in the dreary sky, and the dead-looking yard yawned toward the horizon. I felt it right then like a slap in the face: the aloneness, the vast emptiness all around me. Where was I? I couldn’t even remember what direction we’d been driving when we left the city.
At first I couldn’t find the stairs to the second floor. I opened one door in the kitchen and found a small pantry that smelled vaguely yeasty; I didn’t go in. I found another door that opened on to a staircase going down, cobwebs dangling from the bannister, rickety plank steps disappearing into the dark. I didn’t go there, either. Finally, I found a small greenish-yellow door with a cut-glass knob. It looked like a coat closet, but behind it I found a narrow staircase, the steps painted the same sickly color as the door and worn slick at the edges. It didn’t look particularly safe, but I went up anyway, slowly, hands pressed to the wall on either side of me.
At the top of the stairs was another door. I had to shove and push with my shoulder to get it open, but after a little struggling I did it, and on the other side I found a long, carpeted hallway that made absolutely no sense to the eye. How did it fit into the house? Closed doors lined the walls on either side, and at the far end (which seemed so far away, yards in the distance) the hall was capped off by an arched door, like the front door but smaller. Standing at that door, wearing a long white dress, was my sister.
“Kim!” I yelled. She began to walk toward me, hands outstretched. As she got closer, I could see how much weight she had lost. My sister had never been a small girl—she was always standing in front of the mirror complaining about how her jeans fit or pulling up her shirt to pinch at the rolls around her waist—but now she looked skeletal and drowned in the sheet-like dress, which I could see was actually a nightgown that billowed around her bony ankles. She got close enough to grasp my hands and kiss the air around my head, and I could see her eyes rolling in her taut face like marbles.
“Tara, you made it, you made it,” she said. She was smiling, a little, but she mostly looked like she just woke up from a dead sleep. “It’s so good to see you. Are you so happy to be here? Do you feel safe now?”
“Jesus, Kim,” I said. Her fingers felt sharp scraping against my wristbones. I yanked my hands back but only got one free; she kept the other tight in her grip. “What’s wrong with you? You look like you’ve got a wasting disease.”
“Let me show you my room.” She tugged at my arm and I followed her down the hall. I glanced around at the doors on either side. Only one stood slightly ajar, and through the crack I could see a small pile of teddy bears and a hint of movement, like a curtain blowing at a window or a skirt swishing by. “Is that Winston’s room?” I asked.
Kim reached over and pulled the door shut. “No.”
We reached the arched doorway and she pushed open the door, with some difficulty, as if it were heavy or she was just too weak to handle it. But she didn’t seem weak when she yanked on my wrist, so I assumed the door was just thick and solid and old. It creaked a little on its hinges. Inside, the room was snug and almost too warm, with a fancy canopied bed taking up most of the space, and a single window with a velvet-cushioned windowseat set back in an alcove. The ceiling was low and slanted, and I ducked my head to look out the window, where the big old oak loomed just outside.
“Wait,” I said. “Where exactly am I?” I pointed to my right, then left, then looked out the window at the tree again and tried to see the darkening horizon. “What direction are we facing now?”
“You can see the oak from every window,” Kim said. She sounded like she was talking in her sleep. “Can you see Winston out there? Isn’t he getting so big? He’s getting so big.”
Winston was nowhere to be seen, but then the big oak threw black shadows over everything. “Kim, shouldn’t he come in now? I mean, it’s almost night, he’s not wearing a coat, he must be hungry…”
“He’ll come in when he’s ready. Or when Sam gets home. It’s fine. Everyone will be here for dinner” She smiled at me and I shuddered. “Do you want to change clothes, freshen up? I could draw you a bath.”
I pictured a deep, old, clawfoot bathtub with rusty stains around the faucet. I pictured myself stepping into it, naked. My heart began to pound—I felt as if I was already undressed and vulnerable. Frantically, I thought about my duffel, which was full of my normal clothes. I didn’t know where I’d left it. Downstairs, somewhere? On the porch or under the tree, maybe? Meanwhile, Kim was opening the small armoire in the corner of her room, which seemed to be overflowing with big white nightmare gowns.
“No,” I said. “No thanks. No thanks, Kimmy.”
“Sam is so looking forward to having you stay with us,” she said. “When he gets home we can all eat.”
I backed up to the arched door, which still stood open. “I need to go get my bag,” I said. “I left it downstairs, I think. Then should I just,” I gestured into the hall, “pick a room?”
She glanced out over my shoulder and frowned a little. “No, I think,” she said. “No. You can sleep in here, in my room, for a while, at least. Then we’ll see what happens.” She still had her hands buried elbow-deep in the armoire. When she turned back to rustling through the cotton and flannel, I stepped out of the room and pulled the door shut behind me. It was heavy.
All along that long hall, the rows of closed doors had started to open, just a crack.
The stairwell seemed so far away. I sprinted toward it, squinting to resist looking left or right at what moved in the rooms beside me. I flung the door open and hit the stairs at a trot, forgetting they were painted and slippery. My feet flew out from under me on the third step and I took the rest sliding on my butt, cracking my elbow on the doorjamb at the bottom. My duffel lay there next to the open door, waiting. Let’s go let’s go, it seemed to say.
I didn’t want to leave Kim there. But I didn’t even know where to start. She had been there for five years already, she had given up her life for this place, though she would have said she didn’t have a life to give up, before. Sam was giving her a chance she’d never thought she’d have, she told me once, after the first time he’d told her he loved her.
A chance at what? I’d asked her.
A chance at a different life, she’d said. Who doesn’t want that?
I picked up my duffel and looked around for the front door.
Outside was purply twilight and cold enough to see your breath. I didn’t see Winston hanging from the tree or lurking by the porch. I felt his eyes watching me though, I swear I did, and other eyes, too, from up among the branches. I kept my head down and crunched through the gravel, listening for cars. For a car.I thought I heard footsteps behind me, shuffling through leaves on the side of the driveway, but I didn’t look up and I didn’t look back. I’m not a big reader, but I’ve read enough to know that looking back is never a good idea.
By the time I got to the end of the driveway and out on the blacktop, night had well and truly fallen. I remembered Sam had turned right into the drive, so I turned left up the road and trudged along the shoulder for what seemed like hours, and it gave me a lot of time to think, but I didn’t, really. I just listened to the sound of my own feet in the gravel, telling me not here move on not here move on. I’d never thought much about what I wanted to do with my life or where I wanted to be, but now at least I had an answer to those, sort of.
I saw the headlights coming before I even heard the car approaching. I had plenty of time to drop into the ditch and camouflage myself with some cornstalks, so I was completely hidden when the car passed by. It may not have been the Explorer. I don’t know. I kept my face pressed against my duffel until the sound of the engine was completely gone.
I kept walking, and eventually came to where the road passed through the strange, dense little wooded area we’d come through before. It was going to be so dark in there, so dark. Not even the moonlight could break through. I stopped for just a minute, to catch my breath, but then I kept going, into the woods. It was the only way to get to the other side.
Jodee Stanley’s work has appeared previously in the Mississippi Review, 580 Split, Hobart, Crab Orchard Review, Electric Velocipede, Queen Mob’s Teahouse, and elsewhere. She is the editor of Ninth Letter, the literary journal published by the Creative Writing Program at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.